My friend Dean warns me over Twitter: “Things are about to get very CHIC on here.” He insists there’s about to be a flood of refugees from the fashion and art worlds onto the platform. Everyone is simply fed up with Instagram, he insists.
I try to imagine what a chic Twitter would look like. Compared to Instagram, TikTok (even YouTube) Twitter is a conspicuously anti-aesthetic platform. Some of the best accounts operate pseudonymously, barely a selfie or a fit pic in sight. On Twitter, connecting to your social graph is an option, not a necessity. It’s a place for meeting your idols or total randos.
There’s a reason a small batch anonymous account is called an alt. It’s a schizo break from the doldrums of daily life, a launch into the digital deep blue.
There are images. But they’re brutal, utilitarian, to the point. They serve in the meme war. It’s an ideological realm beyond the fashion system, an afterthought beside all the collective heaving and sighs and what the fuck’s. People have quasi-public panic attacks in parked cars. Everyone has low blood sugar. It’s not a visual place. It’s a visceral place.
But now that I think of it… Maybe that’s what creatives need. The flotsam and jetsam of the new public square, not the manicured front yards of personal brand.
Another friend tweets, corroborating Dean’s point:
This doesn’t come as a surprise. I’ve been hearing murmurs about Instagram getting “much worse” during the COVID pandemic. People say things like, “I really need it for my work”—which sounds ambivalent at best. Or share tips for how to discreetly post content without exposing themselves as less than compliant with social distancing. “Post it as #tbt!”
The surface-level problem for Instagram is no one knows how to post in a crisis. The consequences for fucking up are high. (Cancellation) While the upside for sticking the landing is low. (Everyone should Get Out the Vote, but should everyone post about it?) The dynamic creates content thats flat. It all has a tin copy-paste tonality reminiscent of how a politician speaks. People complain that Instagram is no longer fun for the same reasons people complain ‘all politicians are the same.’
We can sense their caution and inauthenticity, but caution and inauthenticity are precisely the opposite of what keeps people locked in cycles of engagement.
I recently came across an explanation for why TikTok has seen such explosive growth over the past year: content density. In a new BBC documentary, The TikTok Election, venture capitalist Josh Constine claims TikTok is “the most dense content format known to man.” He defines content density as “the measure of how many ooh’s, ah’s, and haha’s per second are contained in a piece of content.”
Since April, TikTok has displaced Instagram as the second most popular social media app among teens. (It remains bested only by Snapchat.) And it seems the platform will reach a billion users in half the time it took Instagram (four years rather than eight). Clearly, it’s not only my downtown friends who are underwhelmed by their Instagram experience and looking for other options.
Reels was launched in a last ditch attempt to compete with TikTok, but the endeavor reads as muddled at best. What Reels lacks is a meme library. TikTok has a years-long lead compiling audio snippets, dance moves, and classic clips for duets that Reels simply can’t match. Instagram was built to highlight personal brand. It’s for the individual. TikTok was built for people to make silly videos together. It’s for the collective.
No one moves into a clouthouse because they need help taking better selfies. They move into a clouthouse because they need help producing better videos.
I’m old enough to remember when Facebook was cool. It launched in 2004, a year before I graduated high school. This was back when Facebook had just stopped being a Harvard-only social network and was slowly adding prestigious colleges to its roster, working its way down the US News & World Report Best Colleges Rankings. It was the Raya of its day and if I’m honest—whether or not a college was on the Facebook network totally influenced my school choice. Social media has always been about status and exclusivity.
It’s not always money or degrees that drive this though. We find ways to judge one another across a variety of vectors. The word that defines how we understand status and exclusivity in 2020 is clout, that very contemporary neologism whose definition seems intentionally ambiguous, implying if you have to ask what it is, you’ll never have any. Clout is a trifecta of good fortune—someone managing to be simultaneously famous, popular, and influential. More than anything though, clout is the brutally visible metrics which measure such things. The likes and retweets and comments and followers that lay bare everyone’s place in the social schematic.